At age 17, Neysa Sanghavi was the youngest person to volunteer with the United Nations in Rwanda at its Mahama refugee camp in 2017. While at the camp, she researched health issues like malaria that refugees dealt with and searched for potential solutions.
Sanghavi, a sophomore from India majoring in human biology, had visited Rwanda earlier that year and worked with the non-profit Avegha-Agahose, which supports women who lost loved ones to genocide through provided housing and therapy.
Her first visit instilled in her a desire to make a difference in the country. Through multiple visits, Sanghavi vowed to make people more aware of Rwanda and its culture. She started The Study Rwanda Project as a way to change people’s misconceptions about it and find solutions to improve business and healthcare.
Sanghavi’s determination impressed high officials in Rwanda. Ernest Rwamucyo, the high commissioner of Rwanda to India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, named her the honorary designation of the Rwandan Brand Ambassador for India at just 17.
Sanghavi’s interest in Rwanda started in high school when she read “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, a book about Nigerian culture and its history of colonialism. After reading the novel, Sanghavi knew she wanted to learn more about how literary portrayals of Africa compared to the continent’s reality.
“I decided that I wanted to go see this for myself because I don’t want to believe in people’s stereotypes,” Sanghavi said.
Monday, Sanghavi traveled to Rwanda for the YouthConnekt Africa conference, where she was invited by Rwandan President Paul Kagame to speak about her work as a volunteer and as a brand ambassador promoting tourism and investment in the country.
As a brand ambassador for the country’s tourism, Sanghavi meets investors to guide them to available resources for investing in Rwanda and works with nonprofits and tourist organizations to provide a more holistic view of Rwanda.
However, Sanghavi said she dealt with multiple obstacles while serving. She said she faced opposition from her relatives in India, who considered Africa dangerous and also had to deal with people’s ignorance as they asked her if she had ebola or was HIV positive for spending time there.
The women Sanghavi worked with at Avegha-Agahose told her they didn’t want their country to be remembered for the genocide of the 1990s, during which nearly 800,000 people died within 100 days. Instead, they wanted to work to change its image.
“They gave me [a] sense of purpose in my life because I realized what I’m interested in and what makes me happy,” Sanghavi said. “My focus shifted from what makes me happy to what makes my community happy and I don’t think I would have had that approach in my life if I was not part of Rwanda and did not interact with these widows.”
For her work at Mahama refugee camp, Sanghavi wanted to understand refugee health issues. Her research took place for a week and a half as she observed the conditions of the camp and learned about its daily functions, including how the refugees dealt with malaria and put on skits to convince the Burundi refugees of the effectiveness of allopathy medicine.
“[The position of brand ambassador] was something I was very proud of achieving but at the same time my next immediate thought was how am I going to be able to use this to be able to do what I want to do,” Sanghavi said.
After her experiences in Rwanda, Sanghavi wrote a book in December 2017 called “Rwanda On The Rise,” which recounts her visits to Rwanda.
Karin Huebner, academic director of the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Studies, said she has kept a copy of the book in her office since she met Sanghavi during her freshman orientation. Huebner said she was impressed by Sanghavi’s passion.
“She has one of those extraordinary empathetic reactionary sensibilities,” Huebner said. “She is really [one of the most] extraordinary students that I’ve had in all my 20 years of being at USC.”
Sanghavi’s work has led her to meet and share her work with dignitaries like Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Indian industrialist Ratan Tata. She is currently working on a project with a private tourism company on voluntourism for Rwanda and hopes to keep working for the country.
“Over time I’ve realized that more than me doing anything for the Rwandans, they did a lot for me because I ended up growing as a person and actually got interested in things I never thought I would be interested in,” Sanghavi said.
Ariana Licea, a sophomore majoring in creative writing, is Sanghavi’s roommate and said that even remotely, Sanghavi manages her different commitments.
“She’s been inspired by the Rwandan people to really be able to help them and embrace them and not only that, but to represent them in a way that’s beyond what we would perceive them as,” Licea said. “They are advancing in a way that’s really powerful, beyond our perception, and she is representing that and sharing that with the world.”